The Evolving World of Executive Search

InterviewExecutive SearchCareer Development

As a college volleyball player at the University of Central Florida, DeLaina (Sarden) Jordan starred. She helped her team to its first American Athletic Conference championship and was named both the league’s player of the year and female scholar-athlete of the year.

But when Jordan was invited onto a select U.S. team, stacked with players from Power 5 programs, she assumed she was no longer the star.

She was fine with it, so content, in fact, that when the coach handed out index cards, asking each player to define their role on the team, Jordan went with “winner." She eyed it as a catchall, a term ascribed to a person ready and willing to do whatever is necessary for the betterment of the team. That, she thought, was where she belonged.

Later, though, her coach pulled her aside. He asked why she went with “winner.” He corrected her. “No,’’ he said, “you’re a stud, and we need you to believe that.’’

Without really recognizing it at the time, that was Jordan’s first brush with behavioral assessment and the realization that how a person perceives herself isn’t necessarily how the outside world views her. Since then, she has become a convert to the impact and effect such assessments can achieve in the workplace, specifically college athletics. Jordan now works as a senior associate at Parker Executive Search and has utilized Profile, a comprehensive assessment that uses DISC, in the facilitation of the search process when clients request more insight into a prospective candidate “beyond the resume.” She’s seen the results up close. “It’s not a predictor, but it’s something that can provide more insight as to who is the best fit for this role,’’ she says. “As we develop pools of candidates for a position, schools might know what they’re looking for. However, it’s the role of the Search Firm to advise on other things to consider. That’s what you want - that they have all the tools possible to inform their decisions. The assessment brings to life who that person naturally is, but also what they’re able to flex to. It helps you know what you’re getting into before you sign on that dotted line.’’

Jordan first encountered Profile upon going through the interview process with Parker Executive Search. At the time, Jordan was working at the University of Wisconsin in the athletic department’s office of Career and Leadership. Having completed a master’s degree at Michigan State, she arrived at Wisconsin anxious to use her own experiences as a studentathlete to help others. Now she stood faced with making a decision that would result in a major pivot in career paths, a complete restart, she thought. She took the assessment and discovered it provided a very clear - and accurate - picture of who she was and what her core values were. “When you talk about self-awareness, the first thing you have to focus on is, ‘What are you rooted and grounded in?’ Because athletics, specifically, is the kind of industry that will eat you alive. You can start to chase things that were not important to you originally,’’ she says.

A few years later, post-career change and a global pandemic, she took the test again to see if the pivot in careers was producing the same opportunity for growth she had envisioned when first taking the leap of faith to depart a field she had worked so hard to break into. And it had. One of her core values had changed. “If I was going to pivot career-wise, I was looking for a place that could both promote and sustain growth. Being in an entrepreneurial environment that was empowering and offered flexibility was reflected in my need for freedom and autonomy, thus reaffirming that the pivot in career paths was providing the work-life integration that I was looking to find’’ she says. “You aren’t the same person you were 10 years ago.’’ “It should shift, right?”

As she dug in at Parker, she realized how invaluable the assessment was as a managerial tool. Jordan chuckles as she admits that, though she always knew she was a direct person, she never appreciated how that directness could be perceived by co-workers until the assessment spelled it out for her. “It has helped significantly,’’ she says. “Going through my first managerial experience, I could look at my assessment and say what are the ways I communicate versus how people need to be communicated with. If we don’t match, it’s up to me to find a way to still get the job done.’’

Thanks in large part to her own personal experiences, Jordan appreciates even more how Profile can help with executive search. There are no Rolodexes anymore, even fewer address books. The old days of a wise, plugged-in athletic director picking up the phone and summoning his or her friends for feedback on a potential new hire are dead, too. There is too much at stake, too much responsibility and too much money involved in college athletics to make decisions in a vacuum. Coaches do more than X and O, and athletic directors are far more than mere departmental managers.

How, though, do you find the right fit? Search firms are not fairy godmothers. Jordan cannot wave a magic wand nor sprinkle pixie dust to ensure a match made in heaven. Parker Search, in fact, is steadfast in its insistence that it does not choose a candidate but merely presents a deep and diverse pool to choose from. Using the behavioral assessments Jordan has found, can help take the very subjective concept of “fit,’’ and make it as objective as possible.

Profile, Jordan believes, allows both parties to get a more complete picture of the intangible skills needed to be successful in the role. A university president in search of an athletic director might learn, via the assessments, that while a candidate with more of an external background seemed to be the most critical strength, the department actually has really low morale, and the new A.D. will also need to have a strong internal backing to buoy the rest of the staff. An innovative coach, anxious to put his or her spin on things, might better recognize that an athletic department filled with long-tenured staff might present challenges when trying to “change the world”.

Or, for a person who is not a great interviewer, for example, the assessment can reveal hidden strengths that match ideally with the position. Conversely, a masterful interviewer might be shown, via the assessment, to not align at all with the core needs or values of the university he or she is hoping to work for. It should not, Jordan explains, be viewed as a way to weed out candidates, but more as a way to develop a deeper understanding of the person you are about to offer a very big job to. It identifies obvious strengths and weaknesses, but also hidden skill sets that a candidate could, if needed, flex to. It can aid in a client’s preparation to provide the appropriate support and infrastructure needed for the selected candidate to be successful.

Jordan has watched internal candidates, long stuck in the shadows, emerge as lead candidates, and the fifth choice turns into the first, as people open their eyes to what will work, as opposed to relying solely upon what they think will work. “The assessments remove the emotion from it,’’ she says.

“It lets you focus on what do I need, or what do we need, to be successful? There is a great deal of self-awareness to be gained, allowing the most reflective person to become the most effective person.’’

Self-awareness, of course, can be scary, and Jordan understands why individuals - as well as athletic departments - could be hesitant to use behavioral assessments in the hiring process. “They already know who they are or what they need.” Jordan counters, though, that in a world of social media image creation, such genuine assessments are even more important. It is easy to create an online persona, to project an image you want the world to see; it is a little more terrifying to share who you really are. “People are afraid to really see themselves,’’ Jordan says. “They get caught up in what they want and mistake that for what they need.’’

In the gray area in between, costly mistakes can happen. The reality is, fit is hard. A quick survey of the news cycle reveals just how difficult. Would-be slam dunks sometimes fail, and obvious head-scratching choices lead to an inevitable demise. Athletic directors meant to bolster a department instead wreak havoc on it.

Athletics are no longer an ancillary part of a university; they are, as any college athletics insider will tell you, the front porch. Fair or unfair, the star quarterback is going to merit more coverage than the soloist. The goal is to make the front porch welcoming, not an eyesore, and the universities that have mastered their partnerships, hired the right people for the right job at the right time, enjoy the benefits of not just winning, but also the joy of an engaged student body and a proud alumni base. “The thing is, these are people’s dream jobs,’’ Jordan says. “And they are very big jobs. When we get it right, it is the best feeling ever.’’

It’s almost, you might say, like a person who sees herself merely as a winner instead discovering she’s actually a stud.